The Catholic Thing
Fall Semester Returns Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Wednesday, 02 September 2009

Americans, unlike the English, do not divide academic calendars into “Michaelmas,” “Hilary,” and “Trinity” terms. For us, it’s Fall or Spring Semester. We measure our lives by the cosmic cycles, not by the drama of salvation.

A Robert Frost poem begins: “The bearer of evil tidings, / When he was halfway there, / Remembered that evil tidings / Were a dangerous thing to bear.”

When we talk of our universities, do we bring “evil tidings?” Bernard Shaw once said: “Youth is such a wonderful thing; it’s a crime to waste it on children.”

Not long ago, Robert Royal remarked that the generation of those whose own parents did not themselves go to college is almost over. Wendell Berry thinks that the dissolution of stable families and communities begins when we send our children to college.

Is there mind without college? Is there mind with college?

What’s it all about, this college business? Of late, I have seen high school plants that simply have every physical facility imaginable. Likewise we see colleges that, for a small fee or via the taxpayer, provide all the heart could desire.

All studies show, however, that about the least “diverse” places politically and intellectually in our culture are the universities. True affirmative action does not touch this ideologically closed shop.

Catholics originally entered the university business to have a platform from which they were free to state what they held and the reasons why they held it. They professed a quaint “diversity” that could be found nowhere else. This peculiar diversity has largely disappeared.

In a brilliant, too little known essay in Modern Age, in 1987, Frederick Wilhelmsen wrote:

Aristotle insisted that philosophy is the highest instance of the life of leisure, but there is no leisure for boys and girls who are expected to gorge themselves on three thousand years of texts and then regurgitate them come examination day. To remember all the data, as suggested, leaves no time for judgment. Yet judgment, says St. Thomas, is the mark of the philosopher of being and the philosopher of being is the Philosopher (328).

Wilhelmsen was concerned with what Leo Strauss also would worry about, namely, that the “Great Books” programs, which took the place of scholasticism, produced mostly skeptics. The history of philosophy took the place of philosophy and left the mind confused.

Students graduated who knew the names of “thinkers.” They did not know themselves how to think. It did not come automatically from reading “Great Books.” One ought to read Descartes. One ought not to end up doubting his own power to know. But he can only do the latter if he knows enough philosophy to deal with the former. The fact is that philosophy as such is taught in very few places among us.

The best way to learn the truth of this proposition is to read Robert Sokolowski’s The Phenomenology of the Human Person. The title is a mouthful, but Sokolowski takes the mind step by step in the direction of, yes, judgment. The method of philosophy, he says, is to “make distinctions,” to say that this is not that, and to state why.

“Philosophy is not the reading of books; philosophy is not the contemplation of nature, philosophy is not the phenomenology of personal experience; philosophy is not its history,” Wilhelmsen wrote in a striking passage. “These are indispensable tools aiding a man to come to know the things that are. But that knowing is precisely knowing and nothing else. We once were given this, not too long ago, in the American Catholic academy. With a few honorable exceptions, we are given it no longer.”

Philosophy ultimately exists in conversation. It needs to be, as Wilhelmsen put it, “talked into existence.” But it first must be “thought” into existence.

When Monica and Patrick sent the young Augustine off to Carthage, they sent him into moral quagmire. Today’s Monicas and Patricks, as Mary Eberstadt has written in The Catholic Thing, are probably sending their offspring into a worse sink, where the phrase “sink or swim” takes on a special meaning.

Can we prepare the eager incoming classes for Fall Semester? Well, yes, they can defiantly read what they will never be assigned. I would begin with a man by the name of Ratzinger, the equal of whom can be found on no academic faculty I know of. But no one will say this. And, as David Walsh has told us, the philosophers are seeking being and its luminosity.

As one of C. S. Lewis’ devils said to the young atheist, “Be very careful what you read.” I have always liked that young devil. I know numerous books that the young atheist should never touch, lest he be tempted, as Plato said, to “turn his soul around.”

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Fr Tim, September 03, 2009
Right on! Great piece and absolutely true. I rarely meet a person who truly thinks. Many people know what they know like a dog catches fleas. He walks through the woods and the fleas jump on him from here and from there. People pick up their world view by hearing something on TV or from a friend or in a book and never really think through anything. They just accumulate statements and compile them into their world view!
Bring back the classics and those who truly can teach them!
RIght on Target
written by Ashley Collins, September 03, 2009
I want to say thank you for pointing out the importance and nature of Philosophy. I graduated from Southern Catholic College with a degree in Philosophy and proud to say that my incredible professor, Dr. Herbert Hartmann, actually had his capstone class read "The Phenomenology of the Human Person." People always tell me they hate philosophy and I try to explain to them its importance because if they only knew what it was, they would know that they already are hardwired to be philosophers.
In Search of Being
written by Willie, September 03, 2009
After sending three kids to college, one becomes aware that there is little mention of philosophy or the Liberal Arts in general. Teaching is a far cry from the Socratic Method or from "The Idea of a University." Undergraduate education, in order to confront the exigency of employment, has become a utilitarian task formerly associated with professional school. If education is for regurgitation rather than cerebration are we headed for a future of more relativism do to flabby brains? Look around
written by Nomen est Omen?, September 03, 2009
This is a beautiful piece, Father Schall. However, I am 24 years old and never attended Catholic school. I was raised in a way that led me perfectly down the path to neo-paganism - in the Chestertonian sense of being aware of God, but worshipping gods instead. Now I've got 2, almost 3, degrees from public Universities and feel as though I have to ask what can I do to get the education I missed? Is it too late to seek what I was deprived of for many years? I'm sure I'm not the only one wondering.
written by Wil, September 03, 2009
I spent 5 years in the philosophy and humanities departments of a state university, and regret wasting my parents' money on the intellectual junk food I was force-fed. I constantly had to go outside required reading lists to get what was needed for education. I seldom encountered any concern for Truth w/a capital 'T', and encountered mostly snickering and apathy among fellow students & professors. Very few care about truth for its own sake anymore... you've hit the nail on the head w/this one!!!
written by Achilles, September 04, 2009
Public schools are the rotten fruit of the rotten roots of modernism. In grade school these kids turn into medicated automatons with auto-responses to an ever incresing list of new neuroses. The humanities have been strip-mined of meaning by scientism and the results are devastating. The antidote is the Western Cannon, delivered by those who know, which ever so rarely is what we loosely call today a ‘teacher.’ Read Fr. Schall's Another Sort of Learning, and read his suggested books.
Kennedy continued
written by Bradley, September 04, 2009
I ask the editor's indulgence to print a comment unrelated to Fr. Schall's fine column. Given the overwhelming and passionate response to the columns on Senator Kennedy, I commend to everyone Cardinal Sean O'Malleys blog comments on the Kennedy funeral (search for "Cardinal Sean's blog"). As Catholics, we are not bound to agree with him, but as the highest ranking prelate in the church who will publicly comment on the subject, he deserves our attention.
I wish
written by Matt, September 04, 2009
. . . I had had more professors like this author. Where have men like this gone? Fr. Schall, I loved The Catholic Mind. Bless you.
24 yr old-Nomen est Omen
written by debby, September 04, 2009
you are NEVER too old!!! learn, study, read & above all Pray everyday for the rest of your life! listen to good teachers on cd or cathoic radio-ave maria radio has some great teachers, st. joseph's communications offers wonderful cds for $3. lots of great avenues to go down. i have found "self-education" far above the typical "education" out there. God gave you a sound mind. give it back to Him and He will re-form your mind. God Bless you! Seat of Wisdom, please pray for us!

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